Meet the Wilcoxs: Host parents Ed and Virginia Wilcox, far left and far right, pose in front of their home with, from left, Ahmed Al Duaghan, Ahmed Al Kadi and Saad Al Ruwaili, all students from Saudi Arabia that have lived with them while at Oregon State University to study English. “That’s been our life – reaching out to International students,” Virginia said. (Contributed photo)
Ed and Virginia Wilcox have shared their mobile home in south Corvallis with four different Saudi Arabian students in the last year for varying periods of time from a few days to half a year.
The couple takes part in University Housing & Dining Services’ Homestay Program, which offers international students a chance to immerse in American culture by living with a local host family.
“I’ve traveled abroad. I know how it feels,” said Virginia who spent long stints in Papua New Guinea and on the Pine Ridge American Indian Reservation with the Oglala Sioux when she was younger. “I’ve lived around other cultures more than my own, which has resulted in reverse culture shock a few times.”
Ed is not as well traveled, but said, “Some of my best friends in school were international students. … Reaching out to international students, it’s like the nations of the world are right here.”
“That’s been our life – reaching out to International students,” Virginia added.
In addition to participating in UHDS’ Homestay Program, the couple is also a member of a local group called Friends of Internationals.
The Wilcoxs have had students from more than 75 countries in their home over the years, hosting many a festive meal for scholars away from home.
A guest book going back 19 years sits on a shelf in the living room. Fourteen photo albums chronicle hundreds of celebrations as well as outings to the beach and mountains, first days and farewells.
A World Map on the Wilcox’s wall is riddled with push pins showing countries of origin. A ping pong table sits in the middle of one of the main rooms, a favorite pastime for recent students that have lived with them.
The Wilcoxs — married for 19 years — share a deep Christian faith. They met at Kings Circle Assembly of God as widowers 20 years ago.
In recent years, however, they’ve exclusively hosted Muslim young men from the Middle East, after hearing that they were a difficult population to place with host families because of prevailing negative stereotypes.
Over the last year, they’ve hosted four men from Saudi Arabia ranging in age from 18 to 25. Three happened to be named Ahmed — Ahmed Al Ghamdi, Ahmed Al Duaghan and Ahmed Al Kadi. The student that lived with them for the longest period of time was Saad Al Ruwaili, who said his English improved greatly through conversations with the Wilcoxs.
The Wilcoxs have proven to be great teachers in that area — willing to cover their home in sticky tabs to help their adopted sons learn vocabulary, if necessary. Virginia also has a background teaching English as a Second Language.
When communication gets difficult, the family heads to the computer to use Google Translate to get a point across.
As for the difference of faith, it has been more of a curiosity than a conflict, the Wilcoxs said. The family takes time to explain the significance of religious holidays and finds ecumenical ways to share them.
“We ask about their faith, they ask about ours,” Ed said. “We just live our lives. We don’t push.”
During 2010-11, 22 students from all over the world participated in the Homestay Program. Out of a roster of 28 local families, 10 shared a long-term placement with a student, and others hosted students for shorter stays.
The Homestay program started in 2008-2009, and grew out of a partnership between University Housing & Dining Services and INTO OSU – an Oregon State program designed to help international students earn a degree in the U.S. by assisting with English language proficiency and other pre-requisites. UHDS has administered the program since fall 2010.
Oregon State’s Homestay Program is partially modeled after homestay programs in the United Kingdom but with an added emphasis on education and cultural exchange — not just an alternate way to provide room and board, said Jacqueline Chambers, who was hired as the full-time coordinator for the program in September 2011. Past part-time homestay coordinators included Katie Scott and Brian Stroup.
“It’s a ‘one-of-a-kind’ program in the U.S.,” Chambers said. And, the program is in-demand with a 23-person waiting list of students hoping to be placed with a host family in the fall of 2011.
“A lot of students will choose homestay to work on their English and learn cultural skills,” Chambers said. Having the support of a family network helps too: “For a lot of these students, it’s their first time away from home.”
Host families range from retirees to college students and needn’t live near campus, just close to transit options or be willing to drive their student to the university area for classes.
Host families provide a private bedroom and study space for students, and one meal a day (usually dinner). Hosts are reimbursed $20 a night to offset expenses.
Interested in being a host to an international student? See the Homestay Program website for more information or call 541-737-8754.
Every family is different: Another couple, Ted and Vickie Fullmer, seated, host up to six students at a time in their home. This year, many of their students hailed from East Asian countries. “Our family is always changing,” Vickie said. (Contributed photo)
By Nancy Raskauskas, UHDS online marketing specialist